4 Things you can do to fix your failing new years resolutions

1 February 2016

 January has only just ended but for many of us, our New Years resolutions have already started to unravel. This is not surprising, as the available evidence suggest that 92 percent of New Years resolutions fail. This high rate of failure is usually attributed to multiple factors; for instance, many resolutions focus on an outcome rather than making a change to the underlying behaviour. For example, “I want to loose 10 lbs” vs “I want to adopt a more healthy life style”. The former is an outcome while the latter is a process. In other cases, we may be too ambitious and we have set our sights too high. We may be also attempting to change too many habits and behaviors all at once. The usual advice here is to be more realistic or to focus on a few keystone habits. At a more fundamental level, the problem with many of our New Years resolutions is that they tend to be very self centered. This is true even when we try to make "spiritual" resolutions. We say things like “I want to pray more”, or “I want to give more to my church”. Again the focus is on me, me, me! While there is nothing really wrong with making a commitment to self improvement, I believe that we can do much better if we ask ourselves the question:

what are we doing to build community and the world around us?
In this article, I’m going to challenge you to augment your usual self improvement resolutions with four(4) extra resolutions that aim to make this world a better place.

Help Your Fellow Humans

The first of these resolutions challenges us to become more involved in helping your fellow man. John Donne the 17th century poet and cleric in his Meditation XVII reminds us that:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 I will leave the question of the specific concrete actions up to your judgement. For some of us it could be to simply commit to a program of Random Acts of Kindness. You can do something to assist or cheer up your fellow humans not only by providing material resources but also by being kind, thoughtful, mannerly, giving compliments, volunteering and so on. Others may choose to become involved in more organised Social Action Programs. Getting involved in this sort of activity is a practical way to express God’s love for the disadvantaged and to counter injustice in the world. 

Helping out your fellow humans can sometimes be inconvenient. The people that you are trying to help may not always praise you. But there are many rewards from becoming involved in such activities. Your involvement will make you feel better about yourself and more importantly, connect you to the people in your community and the society. Additionally, it is no doubt deeply satisfying to see God’s character embodied, specifically his love and care for those who are lonely, isolated or oppressed, and to see people changed by it.

However, when it comes to our efforts to help marginalised or oppressed groups we must always resist the temptation to engage in what Paulo Freire calls in his book the Pedagogy of the Oppressed “false charity”. If we only address material needs and not the wider socio-economic and political context that is at the root of marginalisation and oppression, then, we are not helping anybody. Instead, what we are doing is perpetuating dependency and oppression. So for the rest of 2016 become more involved in efforts to help others. Such generosity starts from the heart so don’t let the lack of material resources, skills and so on keep you back. Indeed, your time may be the most valuable asset. We should also make efforts to spread the word and to get our friends, workmates and families involved.

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Show Gratitude - Our life cannot be rich without gratitude

Letters and Papers from PrisonDietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian. He was also a participant in the German Resistance movement against Nazism and a founding member of the Confessing Church. He was arrested in April 1943 and was subsequently executed in the closing days of World War II. The book, Letters and Papers from Prison, which was published posthumously, is a collection of the letters that Bonhoeffer wrote while still under Nazi imprisonment knowing that there was a high possibility that he would be killed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer writes:

Please don’t ever get anxious or worry about me, but don’t forget to pray for me – I’m sure you don’t. I am so sure of God’s guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty. You must never doubt that I’m traveling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led.

Even in these dire circumstances he writes:

In normal life we hardly realise how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.

But we must not just say “thank you” once in a while. Ralph Waldo Emerson the 18th Century American essayist, lecturer, and poet advises that we:

Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you,and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.

So in 2016 we should aim to express our gratitude on a more regular basis. This attitude of thankfulness should extend to all areas of our lives, leaving us grateful for everything from friends to family to jobs to possessions and of course to God.

Be more Compassionate - Watch the Way We Speak to One Another

Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life Karen Armstrong the British author of numerous books on comparative religion including writes in her book  Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life that:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

This of course is the golden rule: a moral maxim found in nearly every human culture and religion. From the Christian Gospels, the golden rule is reflected in passages like this from Luke 10:27

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Armstrong writes that

Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect

But the golden rule is just not a list of directives it must be put in to practice every day. One of major Armstrong’s concerns is the way we speak to one another especially in the context of political discourse:

To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity.

She advises us that:

Above all, we need to listen. All too often in an argument or debate, we simply listen to others in order to twist their words and use them as grist for our own mill. True listening means more than simply hearing words that are spoken. We have to become alert to the underlying message too and hear what is not uttered aloud. Angry speech in particular requires careful decoding. We should make an effort to hear the pain or fear that surfaces in body language, tone of voice, and choice of imagery.

It is especially disturbing to listen to what passes for discussion and debate on our radio talk shows, on political platforms, in our parliament and on social networking sites. In the following video  Armstrong speaks eloquently about these issues


Love Your Enemies and Practice Forgiveness

The last step of Armstrong’s 12 Step Program is probably the most difficult. It is for us to “Love Our Enemies”. She writes:

We can stop the vicious cycle of attack and counterattack, strike and counter-strike that holds the world in thrall today only if we learn to appreciate the wisdom of restraint toward the enemy.

Armstrong notes that Nelson Mandela:

without any feelings of recrimination…walked out of the South African prison in which he had been confined for twenty-seven years, and when he came to power initiated a process of reconciliation rather than seeking revenge.

The Book on ForgivingDesmond Tutu in his book The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World writes that

Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation

Bishop Tutu advises us to:

Cultivate your forgiveness with your friends, with your family, with strangers, and with yourself. Remind yourself that every person you encounter carries a sorrow and a struggle. Recognise that we all share a fundamental humanity.

Summary and Conclusion

I’m not asking you to give up on your current New Years resolutions, rather I’m asking you to adopt some additional resolutions for 2016 aimed at making your community and the world a better place. These are:

  • To help your fellow humans
  •  To show gratitude
  • To be more compassionate
  •  To love your enemies and practice forgiveness

Don’t be surprised that when you take up my challenge that you will not only make a difference in the world, but you may find yourself attaining your self improvement goals and objectives for the rest of 2016.